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Azerbaijan slips into grip of former Communist chief: Struggling Baku government begs ex-KGB officer to accept post of prime minister

IT IS hard to forget a meeting with Haidar Rizaoglu Aliev, the most famous Communist leader produced by Azerbaijan and the man who yesterday held the key to the future of the strife- torn Caucasus nation.

Mr Aliev, 70, was a KGB major-general, one of the few Muslims or Turks to join the Soviet politburo. He arrived in the Azeri capital of Baku at noon with the struggling government begging him to accept the post of prime minister to pull the country back together after an upsurge of internal strife, economic weakness and heavy defeats at the hands of the Armenians.

'He didn't say 'yes', he didn't say 'no'. He just said, 'let's wait and see',' said a spokesman from the office of President Abulfez Elchibey, a Turkish nationalist dissident once jailed during Mr Aliev's rule as Communist Party first secretary from 1969 to 1983.

Azerbaijan's 50-seat National Assembly met for a second day to try to resolve a crisis in the country's second city of Gandja, where fighting between presidential forces and a rebel commander left nearly 70 people dead this weekend. The rebels say they were massacred as they slept, but presidential forces say they did not shoot first.

Both sides have since backed away from direct clashes. But the rebel leader, Surat Husseinov, having secured the resignation of Mr Elchibey's former prime minister, has now called for President Elchibey's resignation.

Mr Husseinov, 37, boss of a Gandja wool mill, used his rouble millions to arm most of an Azeri brigade to fight the Armenians in nearby Nagorny Karabakh. But he was stripped of army responsibilities two months ago when he abandoned several front-line positions during an argument with the Baku government.

'Nobody thinks Elchibey will actually lose his job,' said a diplomat in Baku. 'He is, after all, the only democratically elected official in the country. The question is how much he will be marginalised.'

Another issue is the role of Russia in the fighting. The Gandja rebels appear to have raised the red Soviet flag and rumours say the rebels may have been joined by Russian officers of the ex-Soviet 104th Airborne Division, which evacuated Gandja in May.

Turkey officially voiced its concern yesterday that a democratic compromise be reached in Azerbaijan. Turkish press commentators said Ankara would be happy to see the forceful Mr Aliev take any post short of Mr Elchibey's own job.

Mr Aliev's own role is not clear, but he still commands a powerful network of apparatchiks in Azerbaijan. One of these is working with the rebel leader, Mr Husseinov. The ex-Communst leader has been asking to become the speaker of the Azeri parliament for months and wants the prime minister's job offered to another opposition leader, Itibar Memedov. This would allow them effectively to rule the country, particularly since Mr Elchibey, a former academic, has proved an indecisive leader since his election by more than 50 per cent of Azeris in June 1992.

Mr Aliev, on the other hand, has shown his mettle as a strong president of his native Nakhichevan, a small Azeri enclave hemmed in by Turkey, Iran and Armenia. 'Aliev would play with the Russians, Iranians and Turks, but more cleverly,' the Baku diplomat said. 'He would maintain a very independent position. Mr Aliev is nobody's puppet.'